CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Northern Arapaho Tribe maintains neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the Eastern Shoshone Tribe has the right to prevent its members from killing bald eagles for religious purposes on the central Wyoming reservation the two tribes share.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe filed court papers Thursday saying a permit the Fish and Wildlife Service granted it this spring to kill two bald eagles for use in the tribe's Sun Dance was meaningless because it didn't specify a place where the birds could be legally killed. The tribe has asked U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne to rule that it has a religious right to kill the birds on its own reservation.
But the Eastern Shoshone oppose the killing of eagles on the tribes' shared land.
The dispute between the tribes underscores the difficulty that can arise with two separate tribal governments coexisting on the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation.
Andrew Baldwin, lawyer for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said Friday other reservations in the country are home to more than one tribe, but those tribes share a unified government. He said the Wind River Indian Reservation is the only one he is aware of where two tribes with separate governments share a single reservation.
The Northern Arapaho sued the Fish and Wildlife Service last year over its delay in granting eagle permits. The federal government in recent years prosecuted a young tribal member who killed a bald eagle for use in the tribe's annual Sun Dance without a permit. Despite the tribe's legal support, the man wound up pleading guilty after his case was transferred to tribal court, and he was ordered to pay a fine.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in March granted the Northern Arapaho Tribe the nation's first permit to kill bald eagles for religious purposes, but specified that it was only good outside the Wind River Indian Reservation. The agency said it had conferred with the Eastern Shoshone and learned that the Eastern Shoshone opposed killing eagles on the reservation.
In its legal filings, the Northern Arapaho point out that Wyoming law prohibits anyone from killing eagles outside the reservation.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said in March that the federal agency didn't believe state permission would be required to kill the birds off the reservation. However, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman confirmed this week that the state takes the position that a federal permit wouldn't allow the Northern Arapaho to take the birds off the reservation.
"Defendants' permit merely invites tribal members to be arrested and prosecuted by the State of Wyoming instead of by the federal government," Baldwin and other lawyers for the Northern Arapaho Tribe wrote to Johnson this week.
Johnson last month granted a request from the Eastern Shoshone to participate in the lawsuit as a "friend of the court." In his order allowing them into the case, Johnson noted state law prohibits killing eagles outside the reservation and said the federal permit offers no "real permission to take eagles at all."
In its request to intervene, the Eastern Arapaho Tribe stated it has an indivisible, one-half interest in all wildlife on the reservation. It said killing eagles goes against its cultural beliefs and also would violate the joint Shoshone and Arapaho Law and Order Code.
However, the Northern Arapaho assert in their filing this week that the Eastern Shoshone Tribe has its own tradition of killing eagles.Comment on this story
"The administrative record does not support the conclusion that taking of eagles by the Northern Arapaho Tribe is in fact offensive to Eastern Shoshone Tribe or to their religious ceremonies," Baldwin and the other lawyers wrote. They said members of both tribes killed eagles historically for religious purposes before the federal government established a repository that dispenses eagle carcasses and feathers to American Indians.
Kimberly Varilek, attorney general for the Eastern Shoshone, said Friday she had no immediate response to the Northern Arapaho claims. She said the tribe will file a written response in court.